Despatch from Bolivia

Suzy Kruhse’s son Dan and his wife Tarun are presently backpacking in South America. Their timing might have been improved, because right now they’re in Bolivia, which hasn’t been the most peaceful country in recent weeks. Here’s an email from Dan and Tarun that might interest readers (especially Wayne Wood, who’ll also be backpacking in Bolivia in a few weeks time).

Not sure how much has made it into the news in Australia, but things have been a little interesting here in Boliviar over the last fortnight.

The story is (as far as we can gather) that Bolivia was planning to sell its natural gas internationally (to the US via Chile) and the population were very unhappy about this, as well as the US educated president, who they considered a racist and out of touch multi billion dollar mining magnate stooge for the States. Many of the indigenous people living inthe Altiplano regions are hunting and gathering to survive and resented the inequity. So, instead of complaining about it, they took measures into their own hands.

All major roads between all major cities in the country where blockaded and there were riots in La Paz (unofficial capital) which left over 70 people dead. We since discovered that a good number of Australians and Israelis travelling in Bolivia were evacuated. But we think evacuation is for whimps. This didn’t affect us initially, just meant we had to revise some travel plans. Then things got worse. We decided to go bush and work at an animal refuge we had heard about in the town of Villa Tunari, 4hrs drive from where we were in Cochabamba, which was being increasingly cut off from other cities by blockades.

Four days later we were having lunch one day on a break from our work in the refuge when we saw on TV the plaza in Cochabamba (where we were standing only 4 days earlier) being consumed by riots, tear gas and molotov cocktails. This looked serious. Figuring that some of this news would possibly make headlines at home we thought we’d better make the 20 minute trip to the nearby town of Sinauta to email the family that we were ok. AS it turns out, this was not the best trip we have made.

We catch a taxi with Jaime, a Puerto Rican also working at the refuge. It isn’t until we negotiate a price that the trip becomes viable for the taxi, and other people in the village come running from all directions and pile in. Fourteen people in a toyota corolla station wagon later, we are ready to roll. (but only because we are going down hill!). Our new record for the number of people in one vehicle! [KAP note – I once fitted 16 people in a Falcon taxi on New Years’ Eve – 2 in the boot – as an enterprising uni student taxi driver – it was a lucrative if dubiously safe journey)

One and a half kms from Sinauta the taxi stops in front of a blockade (bloquao). We have to walk from here. This is a bloquao? It looks like a shovel full of gravel was dropped on the road here and there. ‘This is so lame’ says Jaime and continues with a long tirade of how lame he thinks this country is. OK, we walk then. Further up we pass the smouldering remains of tyres every 100m or so. Interesting. AS we enter town, we see it is jam packed full of heavily armed military, some with camoflage paint (we decided not to take their photo).

After sending our emails and downing a well deserved beer, it is dark and time to catch a taxi back to Villa Tunari. EAsier said than done. Apparently it is too dangerous for taxis to travel at night now. We stand next to a smouldering tyre on the bridge, trying to flag down anyone going our way. There is little traffic, but after two hours no one has stopped, not even trucks or military. We come to the conclusion we are not going back to the refuge tonight. Hope they aren’t too worried about us, as we don’t have their phone number.

We chat to a local who recomends a cheap place to stay. He tells us the reason no one will stop for us (not usually a problem on these back roads) is that they are scared we are US Intelligence. Riiiight, OK then. The next morning we resume our fruitless position on the bridge, and are comforted to see that taxis are moving about again. But not for gringoes it seems. As Tarun approaches a taxi stopped at the nearby petrol station, the driver runs to the cab, starts the engine and does a screeching U turn to avoid us before he has shut his door. While another waves his finger in a ‘no’ to us and speeds off in the direction we want to go. The looks on their faces- these people are
really afraid. Of us.

Finally, after another hour or so of trying to flag down passing vehicles, Dan manages to stop a truck carrying atank of fuel. WE can sit on top they say. Whatever. What a ride! We take a selfy (photo of ourselves) as we go along- hope it works! Because this is Bolivia, after ten minutes we stop to change a tyre. As we help the driver, a taxi going in the opposite direction stops and two Bolivian girls come running towards us. It’s the two girls from the refuge, coming to save us. It is about 9.30 am at this stage and apparently everyone at the refuge are so worried about us. So we thank the truck driver, pile into the cab and head back to the refuge.

And so for us, Sinauta will forever be known as Sin-taxi. (in Spanish, ‘sin’ means ‘without’).

About half way through our one week stay at the refuge, the revolution is successful. The president resigns, the vice-president (a popular man it seems) is sworn in and the blockaoes end. They will hold a referendum on the fate of the gas, but for us travellers, the important thing is that the roads are open again.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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